These days I sit across from another Greatist staffer who loves dogs so much she has a calendar with a different puppy photo for every day of the year. Today I’m faced with a pair of black marble eyes nestled in a giant ball of gray fur. I can almost hear his plea (“Play with me!”) and it’s all I can do to keep from going over and making kissy faces at the paper.
That’s why I’m the perfect target for a site such as Buzzfeed, LOLCats, or Cute Overload, where images of animals just being their cute selves abound. There are dogs that are happy to be dogs and piglets so tiny they’d fit in your palm. These roundups come out pretty much every single day, and apparently there’s no satiating our appetite for cuteness. But our obsession with cute animals isn't necessarily a sign that we're a chronic procrastinator or a puppy-crazed lunatic. Instead, it's generally a normal behavior that keeps us healthy and happy.
What’s the Deal?
Calling over coworkers to look at pictures of baby ducks is a great way to put off that overflowing inbox. But there’s some evidence that our attraction to cuteness may also be a product of human evolution. The traits we find “cute” in animals are the same ones we find cute in babies, namely: a big head, big eyes, and a small nose. Some scientists theorize that, thousands of years ago, one woman may have had a genetic mutation that predisposed her to like babies with those qualities. That meant she paid more attention to those babies, so that they grew up to be healthier and pass on their genes to future generations. It’s also possible that those traits were a sign of good health, so cute babies were more likely to survive and pass on their DNA.
We can only hope that a parent wouldn’t leave an un-cute baby to fend for itself at the hospital, but studies have found both men and women show more motivation to care for babies who have a stereotypically “cute” look Baby Schema in Infant Faces Induces Cuteness Perception and Motivation for Caretaking in Adults. Glocker, M.L., Langleben, D.D., Ruparel, K., et al. Department of Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA. Ethology 2009 Mar;115(3):257-63. The motivational salience of infant faces is similar for men and women. Parsons, C.E., Young, K.S., Kumari, N., et al. University Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom. PLoS One 2011;6(5):e20632.. And it’s not just infant humans, either: Research suggests anything resembling a cute baby will almost automatically attract our attention. This explains why puppies, kittens, and panda bears are all consistently squeal-inducing.
Why It Matters
Our obsession with cuteness has significant implications in contemporary culture. In Japan, cuteness, or kawaii, is so desirable that even adult women strive to look and act childish rather than pretty or sexy, as they might in the U.S. Giggling, speaking in squeaky voices, and even using curvy handwriting are all signs of Japanese women's efforts to embody the concept of kawaii. (Just take a look at the anime films produced by Studio Ghibli or the international Hello Kitty franchise that caters to young women as well as girls.) And across the world, we’ve bred dogs and cats to look exactly the way we want them to, many with those big heads, big eyes, and tiny noses. In some cases, this kind of selective breeding is so severe it can leave animals with dangerous medical conditions.
And while we may think it’s all in our power to just close the laptop and leave the puppy-dog eyes behind us, science suggests our relationship to cute animals is slightly more complicated. Recent research has found some people have more empathy for battered animals and babies than they do for abused adults. According to the study authors, that’s possibly because animals and babies seem more vulnerable and blameless than adults. So it’s possible that even a silly-seeming Buzzfeed list taps into our need to protect those who aren’t as strong as we are.
Other researchers note looking at loveable animals can leave us feeling out of control, literally overwhelmed by cuteness. Sometimes that feeling leads us to exhibit aggressive behavior (“I could just eat you up!”) when we spot something cute. Researchers aren’t sure exactly why we feel the need to hold or squeeze the object of cuteness, but they definitely don’t think it has anything to do with violence. Instead, seeing something cute, cuddly, and seemingly helpless might elicit a protective instinct.
Perhaps even more interesting is that those who spend half their morning mass-emailing LOLCats photos may be happier and healthier than the rest of us. Looking at cute images can actually boost productivity, focus, and mood (Buzzfeed procrastination aside). In one study, those who looked at pictures of baby animals performed higher on tests of motor skills, concentration, and attention than those who didn’t — not to mention they were happier The Power of Kawaii: Viewing Cute Images Promotes a Careful Behavior and Narrows Attentional Focus. Nittono, H., Fukushima, M., Yano, A., et al. Graduate School of Integrated Arts and Sciences, Hiroshima University, Higashi-Hiroshima, Hiroshima, Japan. PLoS One 2012;7(9):e46362.. More than just a method of procrastination, interacting with cuteness may actually be an important part of human health and wellness.
When we absolutely can’t help but click on yet another list of 20 rabbits that like to hop or that video of a baby laughing at herself, we can at least feel comforted knowing that it’s probably not just us — it’s our genes. And rather than feeling guilty for indulging in a daily dose of cuteness, we can instead think of it as a quick mood- and productivity-booster.
But it’s important to remember that just because someone doesn’t look “cute” doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve our kindness or attention. We may be biologically programmed to snuggle up next to those creatures with big heads, but hey, these guys could use a little love, too.